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At The Picture Show
May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Poetry in motion

'Mad Max: Fury Road' is an intoxicating harmony of movement, rhythm and violence

Mad Max: Fury Road
Warner Bros.
Director: George Miller
Screenplay: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris
Starring: om Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Josh Helman, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Nathan Jones and Abbey Lee
Rated R / 2 hours
May 15, 2015
(out of four)

Mad Max: Fury Road is not an action movie - it's a ballet. It is an intricately and exquisitely choreographed performance, a fluid expression of movement, energy and tempo told almost entirely through images and music (I'm including the entire sound design, explosions and all, in this definition of music), with speaking kept at a minimum.

Action is pretty much the default form of mainstream cinema, but how many movies actually use action as the storytelling itself rather than simply a facilitation of the plot? Not many. (And that includes a lot of really good action movies.) Fury Road is something different. Here, action is the mode of expression, and the result is a spectacular dance of bodies swinging, flying, rolling, falling, colliding; of vintage automobiles dressed up and reinforced into fierce new creatures, like beasts of the southern Namibian wild*; and all in service of the chase itself, a long waltz between hunter and hunted, between captors and survivors. It's true, the film is essentially one long, relentless chase scene - but in delivering that singular objective it contains more than its share of narrative, character and emotion, not to mention unflinching visceral force.

* The movie was shot largely in the Namibian desert.

There's something genuinely symphonic about the way director George Miller (at age 70, in his fourth foray into the same franchise, somehow continuing to improve and reinvent his own wheel) uses the principles of action - movement, space, speed, the careful collaboration and synchronization of so many moving pieces. As I watched it, I wasn't thinking of other action films. I wasn't even thinking of previous entries in the Mad Max series. Instead it reminded me of Powell and Pressburger's The Tales of Hoffmann and The Red Shoes. And of the climactic 20 minutes of An American in Paris. And even, interestingly, of what the original Mad Max, Mel Gibson, attempted to do with Apocalypto (not quite as successfully) - an extravagant two-hour chase amidst a mad civilization.

And probably most notable of all, it reminded me of the silent era - in many ways, but first and foremost in the way it communicates almost everything through motion and through the musical rhythms of its editing. The spectacular third-act train sequence in Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger was similarly influenced by silent filmmaking - this movie is kinda like that scene, but even better, and for two solid hours instead of 20 minutes.

The parallels continue with Miller's use of color, where he both embraces and subverts modern conventions. He employs Hollywood's favorite color scheme - teal and yellow - but goes crazy with it, creating sequences that are virtually monochromatic in a way distinctly reminiscent of the way silent filmmakers (and even some early talkies) would use color tinting and toning to represent specific ideas or moods.

In Fury Road, the same effect is in play. The harsh yellows of the daytime sequences are foreboding and scary. The sharp blues in other scenes create a dreamlike impression. In tandem, they convey a borderline surreal effect that infects the whole film. Which is only fitting, considering both the nightmarish qualities of this medieval/S&M/punk dystopian wasteland, and the ways Miller employs subconscious imagery to get across ideas and plot points typically reserved for expository dialogue (of which this film has precious little). In the opening scenes when we're first introduced to Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, an effortlessly powerful presence who can do so much with just a look, a glare; a perfect fit considering this is a largely silent performance) - a solitary outsider trying to keep a grip on sanity in a world gone mad - we see him haunted by brief, flashing glimpses of a small child. And a woman. What was a drawn-out plot point in the original films is now a visual symbol that makes the character's emotional baggage no less clear: He had a family, he lost it, now he's on his own and has only his own survival in mind.

In fact, most of the information we get about characters is just caught in glimpses and small moments in between the frenzied mayhem that accompanies them all wherever they go. Things are too urgent - there's no time for small talk and explanations, either for them or for the movie itself.

Rather than simply going back to the well and rehashing the existing trilogy for a new audience, Miller reimagines it completely. The whole Mad Max universe feels like a vision that continues to evolve with each new version. This is George Miller's Dystopia v4.0, and it is at once the most extravagant and the most stripped down interpretation yet. It's no longer just a barren, anarchic desert; order has sprung up out of the disorder, in the form of the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) - a pasty armored madman deified by a dying population that awaits the rare moment when he rains fresh water down upon them. Adorned with an imposing, toothy facemask that doubles as an apparatus for his breathing and perhaps his whole system - like a sort of neo-punk apocalyptic Darth Vader - Joe takes women as his property, exploiting them for their milk and their wombs. His prized possessions are his five "wives," whose escape sets the wheels - literally - of the plot in motion.

Their savior - and indeed the film's savior, even more so than the title character - is Imperator Furiosa (a ferociously memorable Charlize Theron) - presumably Joe's best and most loyal subject who, en route to Gas Town for a new batch of "guzzoline," goes off-road, the wives secretly in tow, with freedom (or whatever passes for freedom in this world) in her sights. It doesn't take long before Joe and his minions are on to her, and from then the chase is on. The ceremonial way they go after her is emblematic of the deranged absurdity that runs through the film's veins. Immortan's troops literally beat the drums of war, as their battalion of spiky, weaponized trucks and tanks are accompanied by a full orchestra - drummers stacked two by two in elevating rows in the bed of a reinforced truck, surrounded by a towering speaker system that has its own leading man, a blind grotesque chained to the front of the vehicle whose electric guitar doubles as a flamethrower. It's all theatre and showmanship and it's all magnificently bonkers.

It's by accident that Furiosa teams up with Max, who is initially a captive of Joe and his merry band of War Boys, and who, upon his escape, only reluctantly helps Furiosa's cause.

While the Mad Max franchise has long been identified for its fetishistic costuming and primal violence, Fury Road pushes that to the extreme. There is a heavy corporeal fascination this time around. While the specifics are left largely ambiguous, one of the primary focuses is the toll that the utter toxicity of this postapocalyptic environment has taken on the human body. Even the powerful like Immortan Joe are sickly. And while Hardy's Max remains as virile and physically potent as Gibson's incarnation ever was, he also spends the first half-hour of the film stripped of his physical capability, latched to a car and injected with tubing in order to serve as a human blood transfusion system (or "blood bag") for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of Joe's most loyal War Boys. The War Boys, for the record, are bald, feral, chalk-skinned warriors, their bodies covered in scars and tumors, whose short life spans are rewarded with the promise of entering Valhalla for loyally serving their master. It seems virtually everyone who populates this world is ornamented with elaborate piercings or mechanical appendages or stylized armor or chrome war paint, some of which is treated as religiously ritualistic in a way we don't quite understand. Far from being simply spectacle, the importance of the body is also apparent in more narrowly focused moments - like an early hand-to-hand combat scene involving Max and Furiosa (and a few peripheral figures) in which their bodies move like intimate dance partners.

This is as fully realized a world as we've seen put on screen in many years - so fully realized that we don't get it explained to us, we just exist in it for two hours. Miller indulges us in the visceral havoc of it all, and rewards us with some of the most expertly choreographed, brilliantly designed action ever filmed. Action has become a weightless cinematic routine in a lot of ways. But Miller recognizes it not just as a tool in his toolbox, but as its own entire language. Fury Road, his crowning achievement, doesn't simply use action - it is action.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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